Back in November, I wrote a commentary contrasting two political inquiries on climate change. In Congress, Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, who chairs the Science, Space and Technology Committee and who has received generous support from oil and gas industries, is conducting an inquisition of researchers and administrators of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). He is trying to find information to support his claim that a study by Thomas Karl of NOAA was politically motivated. The Karl study found that there has been no hiatus in global warming in the first part of this century as climate change deniers have claimed.
Smith has continued with his inquisition, and in a recent hearing, he claimed that a new paper published in the journal Nature “confirms the halt in global warming.”
Actually, the paper did no such thing, at least according to John Fyfe, the lead author of the paper in an email to FactCheck.org. Michael Mann of Penn State University, another author on the Nature paper, said in an open letter to Representative Smith that the Nature paper “does NOT support the notion of a ‘pause’ in global warming, only a *temporary slowdown*, which was due to natural factors, and has now ended.” (In fact, last year was the warmest year on record, beating the record set just a year earlier by a considerable margin.)
These days, though, Congressional hearings are not meant to gather the best information to inform policies that will help our country solve its challenges. Committees invite witnesses who will support the political views of the committee chairman. These types of hearings have little shelf life beyond a news cycle.
While Representative Smith takes quotes out of context to support his climate change denial, New York State’s Attorney General Eric Schneiderman continues with his investigation into the energy giant Exxon. That investigation began after a series of articles published in the Los Angeles Times and Inside Climate News revealed that Exxon’s own scientists were aware of the impact of the burning of fossil fuels on the earth’s climate, but the company spent years sowing doubt about climate science. As I said in November, Schneiderman’s investigation might have more of an impact on the climate change debate than Mr. Smith’s little inquisition, especially if other states joined the effort. That collective effort appears to be underway.
According to a report in The Washington Post on April 1, the attorneys general of more than a dozen states gathered in New York early in the week of March 28 and vowed to “‘collectively, collaboratively and aggressively’ investigate whether fossil fuel companies such as ExxonMobil have misled shareholders and the public about what they knew — and when — about the risks of climate change.”
Progress at the national level can be slowed or halted because it would upset entrenched economic interests. When federal policy makers are slow to act, states can help move the needle. In the 1990s, states were burdened by medical costs associated with the cigarette smoking of their residents. By then, the link between lung cancer and cigarette smoking was well established, but tobacco companies continued to deny that link. A collaboration of state attorneys general successfully sued the tobacco companies and won more than $200 billion, paid out over 25 years, as well as some policy changes.
Climate change will be extremely expensive for states—especially coastal states—that will be forced to shore up or abandon infrastructure as sea levels rise. As facts trickle out in the multi-state investigation of energy companies, it will not only educate the public about climate change and the role of fossil fuels, but if companies are found to have deliberately misled the nation about the risks, they may be forced to compensate states for climate change-related damage down the road.